True Touching Story of a Tenacious Youth
“Saihanba” is a word that comes from a combination of Mongolian and Chinese language, and means “a beautiful and tall mountain.” To restore this beautiful highland, three generations of experts spent 55 years turning Saihanba from a desert to a 112 million acres of the world’s largest man-made forest.
Currently showing on CCTV1, Perfect Youth is a recollection of this past. Closely related to the history and struggle of several generations of Saihanba’s foresters, the 55-year afforestation miracle is recounted from a modern perspective. This drama attracted much attention with its unconventional characterization and tight tempo. Since its broadcast, it has broken the 2% Real-time Viewership record for many consecutive days.
No Heroic Image for the Protagonist at the Opening
The story of Saihanba has been widely circulated. At the 2017 UN Environment Assembly, Hebei’s Saihanba’s Forest Farm bags the UN’s top environmental award, namely the “Champions of the Earth” award, for its effort in promoting ecological civilization. However, when director Ju Xing Mao and his team first received this project, they knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task.
While the story of Saihanba is widely known, turning it into a drama requires the need to conform to the rules of artistic creation. Doubling up as the producer and chief scriptwriter, Perfect Youth is written by Guo Jing Yu. He uses an 8-year polished script from another chief scriptwriter, Yang Yong, as the base and was finally completed after repeated attempts of re-creation. The story opens in the year of early-1960s where a group of young graduates majoring in forestry from 18 provinces, represented by Feng Cheng and Qin Xue Mei, forms a pioneering 369 members team with the Forestry Department of Chengde, tasked to re-build a forest in Saihanba to fight desertification.
The audience will witness the growth of the young graduates such as Feng Cheng and Qin Xuemei. Apart from the main theme of afforestation, the characters’ kinship, friendship and romantic relationship are also the highlight of the drama. Perfect Youth opens with Feng Cheng, a forestry university teacher who was transferred from Beijing to the paddock. He first comes to the paddock not for the task of afforestation but for personal reasons. Director Ju Xing Mao said, “we don’t want the audience to see a heroic image that is different from the ordinary people, but to see a protagonist closer to ordinary people. From someone who knew nothing about desertification, to gradually realizing the importance of the afforestation business, and finally becoming the backbone of the local afforestation team, this transformation is the character’s growth, which also emanates the main theme of the drama.” From Ju Xingmao’s point of view, while celebrating the spirit of Saihanba, the creators of the drama have to keep in mind and reflect on ways to make this mainstream drama a better one.
Fast Film Pace to Suit the Taste of the Young Audiences
“We emphasize on plot intensity. At present, the narrative rhythm of the story is close to that of web dramas to avoid excessive draggy moments, and to better suit the taste of the contemporary audiences.” Ju Xing Mao said he had seen many dramas of similar theme, such as Jiao Yulu, Iron Man Wang Jinxi and etc. Tweaking the shooting strategy for today’s new audience to better suit their viewing habits is the main task for the crew of Perfect Youth.
Regarding Producer Guo Jingyu as his master, Ju Xing Mao’s Perfect Youth has showed signs of drama styles commonly employed in Guo Jingyu and his team’s dramas, such as Tie Lihua and Da Gou Gun. “Highlighting story plots and characters are our part of our creative direction,” said Director Ju Xing Mao. Taking the first 10 episodes as an example, plot progress and narrative density is much higher than the ordinary local dramas. Coupled with the outstanding performance of the seasoned actors, this drama would allow the audience to feel like they are watching a feature film with strong plots.
“Apart from plot rhythm, character relationship also plays an important part in the story.” Ju Xing Mao also mentioned, “as this drama is about the stories of the 60s, this 50-year gap can result in unfamiliarity for the people of this decade.” It is thus important to bridge this gap between the actors of this drama and their roles, in order to draw the audience into the authenticity of their characters. Although the male leads stand out a great deal in the story, this drama is really more about shaping the masses of characters, hence, it is important to emphasize and strengthen the various personality traits of each character while shooting. The characters of the drama — the forestry director, Yu Zhenglai, the cafeteria master, Liu Liutou, and Uncle Li Tieniu — all display strong and impressive personalities.
The Pursuit of Realism in the Harsh Environment
To tell a story that spans half a century, the changes in time and space is a real test for the filming crew. In order to recreate the authenticity of Saihanba’s desert afforestation, the film crew of Perfect Youth worked really hard so that the audience can relive the heroic struggle of the three generations in Saihanba.
The shoot for Perfect Youth lasted 162 days, spanning across three seasons — autumn, winter and spring– and travelled to Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Chengde, Inner Mongolia, Duolun and Wudan for filming. “Chengde Saihanba is already a tourist attraction now. But to shoot the plateau deserts for this drama, we can only go north, into Inner Mongolia for their plateau desert scenes,” said Ju Mao Xing. In truth, with today’s filming technology, these landscapes can be featured using green screen technology, but the filming team believes that only feeling and seeing the real scene can we truly appreciate and feature the hardships of the early forester.
“From an actor’s point of view, acting in a studio and then adding computerised effects such as snow, is definitely different from experiencing it personally. In studio, you cannot feel how cold the wind is, how heavy sand storm is, what the air feels like, and how difficult it is to plant trees, hence, every line you say and every expression that comes out may not be so real.” In order to have the scenes depicted closer to reality, the film crew traversed thousands of kilometres and faced the extreme cold, sand and blizzard. “Snow was particularly thick. Almost everyday, we set off at five or six in the morning, with temperature ranging from minus 37 ° C to minus 40 ° C.” Ju Xingmao revealed that at that time, the photographer’s hand would stick to the iron as long as it touched the iron. Two or three people suffered severe frostbite. A female makeup artist even once thought that her hand was completely frozen and cried non-stop.
The film crew carried on shooting in this harsh environment for a month until all the scenes were completed. “Everyone felt it was extremely tough to film in such an environment, and it was definitely my toughest filming experience since I joined this industry. But the people of Saihanba are fighting fire, cutting branches, preventing diseases and pests every day. What they have given up are far more than what we have paid.” Ju Xingmao said only those who have gone through this can then truly understand the spirit of Saihanba. “While we have finally completed shooting the drama, we may have experienced only one tenth, or even less, than what the people of Saihanba have been through. It has been a tough time shooting in such a harsh environment for half a year, we can imagine how strong a will is needed for the three generations of Saihanba to persist through 55 years of hardships and winds.
An Extract of the Review by China News Service:
In August 2018, a TV series Perfect Youth that features 55 years of efforts by three generations of experts, to turn a desert Saihanba into the largest man-made forest in the world, attracted widespread attention from people from all walks of life. This drama took more than 7 years to incubate the script and was filmed for more than a year, traversed 8 different places for shoot, with many of them shot in real harsh environment, such as the deserts and in extreme cold conditions. Since its premiere, it has achieved high ratings and has received good feedback.
Perfect Youth uses an unconventional way in sculpting its various dramatic characters, coupled with tight story plot and historical background, it tells the story of the several generations of foresters in Saihanba. On Weibo, it managed to amass 1.1 billion readership, creating many hot topics on the drama. Evidently, the broadcasting platforms of TV dramas have evolved; topicality, recognition, and relativity have now become part of realistic TV dramas’s new pursuit, which help to inject vitality into the dramatic work, making the story more powerful and communicable.
Recently, works set in historical times have been eye-catching. Perfect Youth showcases the growth of a group of young people, integrating the green development concept through Saihanba’s afforestation story, while channeling the spirit of selfless dedication to a vast audience.
This summer, this TV series with not a single famous star, attracted the eyeballs of many young people. Perfect Youth uses its visuals, to influence and solidify the spirit of Saihanba among the audience members. The selfless deeds of the first generation of Saihanba builders moved the creators of the drama, and the creators went on and dedicate their fine works to the vast audience members — stories that came from the people, were recreated and given back to the people; this is a necessary trajectory of an interesting Chinese story.